Baltimore painter Jo Smail, whose abstract paintings of pink squares and dark splotches of pigment on a white ground played a crucial role in her recovery from a stroke in 2000, has been named winner of the prestigious Trawick Prize sponsored by the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District.
Smail, 64, won the $10,000 first-place award for her paintings Small Birds Flying Low, Humming a Love Song and Code. This was the third time Smail entered the contest; she was a finalist on both previous occasions.
"I was shocked when I won this year but also thrilled to be in the company of such wonderful artists," Smail said, adding that she hoped to use the money to publish a catalog of her work.
A native of South Africa, Smail moved to Baltimore in 1982 with her husband, a physician, and their three children. The next year the couple settled here permanently, and Smail found work as a painting instructor at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
In 1996, fire destroyed the Clipper Mill Road building that had housed all her artworks as well as the family's possessions.
"The whole block went up in flames," Smail recalled. "At the time, I felt the best part of me had gone. But, ironically, some of my best work came out of that experience, so actually it was a kind of gift."
After the fire, Smail began painting a new series of pink squares on white grounds, which for her symbolized the sense of security she felt with her husband.
But in 2000, as she was teaching a class at MICA, she suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak. During her years-long recovery, she tried to express through her paintings the feelings and experiences that she could no longer articulate in words.
"The pale pink squares became my version of silence," Smail recalled. "I juxtaposed them with plants or other figures, which I thought of as speech. It was a way of communicating."
The contest judges were Anne Ellegood, associate curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Amy G. Moorefield, assistant director and curator of collections for Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery; and Rex Stevens, chair of the general fine arts department at MICA.
Nicholas Wisniewski of Baltimore won the second-place prize of $2,000. Bruce Wilhelm of Richmond, Va., and Kathleen Shafer of Washington each won $1,000 prizes.
The other finalists were Mary Coble, Mary Early, Inga Frick and Baby Martinez, all of Washington, Suzanna Fields of Richmond, Linda Hesh of Alexandria, Va., and Jeanine Harkleroad of Chesapeake, Va.
The five-year-old Trawick Prize, founded by Bethesda businesswoman Carol Trawick, is open to artists from Maryland, Virginia and Washington.